Microsoft Surface Book with Performance Base Laptop Review
Just in time for new Macs, Microsoft beefs up its Book
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Last year, Microsoft surprised everyone with its ultimate laptop/tablet combo, dubbed Surface Book. I really enjoyed using it, but lamented its high price tag and it was held back by buggy hardware. It was a beautiful, expensive laptop...one whose screen tears off to become a clipboard-style tablet.
Just in time for the holidays (and for new MacBook Pros to finally arrive), Microsoft's reinvested in its laptop line by adding the new Surface Book with Performance Base (MSRP $2,399, $3,299 as tested). This Surface Book gets an extra kick in the pants from a faster Nvidia graphics chip in a redesigned keyboard base. The tablet portion hasn't been redesigned, but you'll not only get improved graphics but also longer battery life.
If you were iffy about the original Surface Book, then those concerns generally apply here. But, if you thought the first Book wasn't quite powerful enough, the Performance Base version helps shore up those weaknesses, and makes the product even more lustworthy.
About the Surface Book with Performance Base
This new version of Surface Book keeps the beating Intel heart of the current Book, and mates it to a keyboard that has a more powerful Nvidia graphics processor and more battery inside. There are three versions of this laptop, and the one we were able to try is the top-of-the-line model that sells for the eye-watering price of $3,299:
•Intel Core i7-6600U dual-core processor
•16 GB RAM
•1 TB PCIe solid state drive
•13.3-inch 3000 x 2000 IPS touchscreen
•Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M graphics with 2 GB GDDR5 VRAM (in keyboard dock)
•WiFi AC/ Bluetooth 4.1
What We Like
The kinks are ironed out.
The last time I used a Surface Book, the end result was a mixed bag. The model I sampled was prone to glitches—not what you want from a super expensive, premium-grade 2-in-1. And I wasn't the only one complaining, either.
Thankfully, most of these issues have been resolved at this point, and a lot of them were due to Intel's 6th generation chips, which had problems in many competing systems, too. I found the Surface Book with Performance Base perfectly usable, with little issue whether in full laptop mode, or even with the screen torn off and used as a tablet.
A spec bump in some key areas.
Some might kvetch that the new, super-expensive Surface Book with Performance Base isn't that different. It still uses a 6th generation Intel Core i7 chip in the display, meaning the detachable tablet portion is unchanged from its introduction late last year. Is that the end of the world? Well, no. Even though Intel's just debuted its latest 7th gen processors, I've found that they don't add a whole lot into the mix. These dual-core i7 processors are solid at this point.
Where the Performance Base changes the narrative is in graphics performance and battery life. The original discrete GPU models of Surface Book have a custom Nvidia graphics chip that helped it get a leg-up on its competition but wasn't anything to write home about. The Performance Base swaps that for a spicier Nvidia GTX 965M with 2 GB GDDR5 memory onboard. It won't game or crunch data like a Razer Blade, but it'll give a much-appreciated boost when running through demanding tasks.
Battery capacity is up around 30%, all stuffed inside the redesigned Performance Base keyboard. In our intensive PCMark 8 Home battery life test, we saw a decent increase of runtime. Up from around four and a half hours, we saw nearly five hours in the test with the Performance Base version. If you're a road warrior who demands a power and battery life that can work as long as you, this new version of Surface Book should be on your list.
Sleek, and still unorthodox as all getout
Bitter about the 2016 MacBook Pros? If you gravitated towards Apple's notebooks because they're beautiful and go against the grain, then meet the hipster laptop of your dreams. Surface Book with Performance Base delivers fast internals in an unforgettable, unique enclosure. If you're looking at paying Apple prices for a notebook, Surface Book might not make you shy like a startled mustang.
But the inclusion of a lovely pen (recommended by our comic artist pal Braden Lamb), the versatility of using the screen as a standalone device for watching a video or reading, is something that the MacBook Pro can't do. Sure, the Mac has a skinny Touch Bar above the keyboard, but it still doesn't have a full touchscreen like Surface Book. Additionally, the Surface Book lets you log in with your grinning face instead of using a fingerprint, a technology that, when it works, makes the Mac's TouchID sensor seem like it's old hat.
Even though I'd recommend the HP Spectre X360 and even the cheaper Surface Pro 4 to people on a tighter budget, Microsoft's 2-in-1 solution with this new Performance Base is tailor-made for more demanding professional users.
No-compromises on ports and a high-quality keyboard
Perhaps the most annoying "updates" to the 2016 MacBook Pros came in the form of transformed ports and a keyboard that's been reduced to barely moving. Surface Book with Performance Base has none of these drawbacks. It might not have the awesome potential of a Thunderbolt 3 port like competitors from Razer and Dell, but everything else makes it feel ready to get real work done now, today, in the present.
Surface Book with Performance Base retains the handy SD card reader and twin USB 3.0 ports that professional users expect. The keyboard dock, redesigned to fit a hotter, faster graphics processor, has a new keyboard to match. Redesigned though it may be, it's another A+ Microsoft keyboard—super comfortable and responsive to type on for long sprints.
What We Don't Like
Battery life in tablet mode isn't great
While I truly admire the ability to undock the display from the Surface Book, the un-updated bits of Surface Book still smart just a tiny bit. The so-called "clipboard" is a cool party trick, but its short 2-hour battery life means you won't be binge watching Netflix on its gorgeous 13.3-inch display. Instead, you'll be limited to short bursts of content, quick batch edits in Lightroom, or a few chapters in a Kindle book.
I've used the Surface Book clipboard to edit stories with the Surface Pen, and for that usage, Surface Book with Performance Base is as extraordinary to use as before. Journalists who like to red-pen material just like in the good ol' paper days would do well to look into a Surface for editing and notetaking.
No Thunderbolt 3 in a year when everyone's added it.
So, Apple took away the MacBook Pro's normal USB ports and replaced them with Thunderbolt 3 ports. Mac fans are already bellyaching about needing adapters in order to use their current accouterments.
That gives the Surface Book immediate compatibility with today's devices, but there's a catch. I'd imagine, without an extensive redesign, Microsoft was unable to sneak in a Thunderbolt 3/USB-C port. One of these future-proofed ports would have gone a long way to bridge the gap between today's needs and tomorrow's devices, but I'd imagine that we'll have to wait for the inevitable Surface Book sequel to roll around.
As it stands, competing devices from HP, Dell, and Razer all give you the power of Thunderbolt and the flexibility of USB-C, giving them a slight port advantage over the updated Surface Book with Performance Base.
Should You Buy It?
It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.
Thanks to its boost in battery and graphics potential, Microsoft has given Surface Book a great shot in the arm. It's the highest-performing 2-in-1 we've tested thus far, and it underscores that Surface wants to win over pro and creative users. It's far from the reinvention that some people were hoping for, and if you were annoyed with the old one, this one has the exact same foibles.
The concept didn't need a whole lot more to push it over the edge, and the extra oomph of the Performance Base make it that much more interesting. Of course, you're still looking at a really expensive device. Given that this will trounce a similarly-equipped 13-inch MacBook Pro in intensive graphical tasks, the extra price doesn't seem like a big ask.
Throw in the detachable tablet and the useful Surface Pen, and the unique value proposition makes Surface Book more interesting than what Apple has to offer on its Pro offerings. Of course, quad-core models like the Razer Blade and Dell XPS 15 give you more computing power for your money. Where Surface Book shines is as a device that has few legitimate rivals. Its blend of performance, design, and flexibility are hard to find elsewhere. Even though it costs a pretty penny, Microsoft still has a special laptop in this supercharged Surface Book.